By Mike Richardson
In the days of 3D Pirates, talking cars, scenery-folding digital effects, sequels ad nauseam, all-singing all-dancing multiplex fodder and comedian/pop star/movie star vehicles, Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver reminds us what cinema can actually do.
Taxi Driver is 35 years old this year and has been re-released (far too briefly). So much has been written about the film that it has slipped into everyone’s unconscious mind, so much so that most people who haven’t actually seen it feel as if they have. Everyone is familiar with “You talking to me…” and the eerie orchestral score, but the film deserves to be re-watched and re-appreciated. As is almost always the case, a darkened cinema is the best place to do it.
The film came from a time where cinema was both raw and wild (seven years after Easy Rider and four before Raging Bull), reflecting huge talents at their peak, and I can’t think of a more arresting cinema experience. The first name on the screen is the director Martin Scorsese, who drives an emotional steamroller at the audience for start to finish that captures the sleaze and the psychosis of the city and his characters. Taxi Driver was only Scorsese’s fifth feature but it still reached dark heights and shocking depths that many seasoned filmmakers wouldn’t attempt these days. Paul Schrader, who wrote the screenplay, invites the audience into a contemporary Hades around the mean streets of New York. Schrader started the story believing that he was just writing about loneliness, but that soon evolved into ‘the pathology of loneliness’ and legend has it that as he worked at the typewriter he kept a loaded gun in his desk draw for inspiration and motivation.
Such a film requires stellar actors to carry it off and the casting is pitch perfect: Robert De Niro gives the performance of a lifetime as Travis Bickle, and Taxi Driver deserves a re-watch if only to remind yourself what an extraordinary actor he can be (rather than that grumpy dad in those Focker films). It’s worth noting that Taxi Driver came between De Niro’s Best Actor Oscar for The Godfather Part II (1974) and before an Academy Award nomination for The Deer Hunter (1978). De Niro’s typical method acting ‘tricks’ included driving an actual cab 12 hours a day for a month, and he improvised much of the dialogue (including the legendary “…You talkin’ to me?”), which is impressive enough, but in his insomniac Vietnam vet there is a constant stream of borderline psychopathic rage, bereft of loony tics and twitches and essayed instead through minimal dialogue and considered silences. The film also shows off the acting talents of Harvey Keitel as Sport the pimp, Jodie Foster as his juvenile prostitute, Peter Boyle as a fellow taxi hack, Cybil Shepherd as the untouched beauty of Bickle’s desires and Scorsese himself as an unsettled passenger, with a thing for the Magnum .44 – “You ever see what a .44 Magnum pistol could do to a woman’s face. That you should see.”
The critics loved the film and it was nominated for four Academy Awards, (Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress and Best Original Score, and won the Palme d’Or at Cannes. The film has never been far from critics’ minds; the American Film Institute ranked it as the 52nd greatest American film ever made and it has been selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry.
Taxi Driver is a dirty, bloody and violent anthem to the terrors of loneliness and the frenzied wrath that simmers under the surface of the deeply disturbed. It’s not a fun film, it’s not an easy film but it is a brilliant film that has lost none of its power over the decades.